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November 09, 2006

There Is a Reason Why it Was Called the Depression

Because just reading about it is f---ing depressing! In the US, the Great Depression didn't start until after the stock market crash of 1929, but in Great Britain, things had already been pretty depressing for a long time. For the most part, the Liberal landslide election of 1906 was the last good thing that happened in Britain until the establishment of the Welfare State after World War II.

The other day, my mom asked me how school was going, and I thought I was going to cry telling her about World War I. We had been reading the chapter on the Battle of the Somme from John Keegan's The Face of Battle, which I actually enjoyed quite a bit despite having absolutely no interest in military history, but it was heart-wrenching to read about the tens of thousands who died in a battle that took no ground, in which the soldiers had no chance from the outset.

Even more men returned from the war with missing limbs and deep psychological scars, but it doesn't end there. All the aggression that had been bottled up through four years of entrenchment was subsequently expended in the empire by the Black and Tans in the Irish War of Independence and with the Amritsar Massacre in India, not to mention aerial bombardment of newly acquired imperial territory in the Middle East, which Britain was supposedly holding in trust for the League of Nations.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Great War did have some good effects on the homefront. Steady employment became much more available to the working class, and women's employment opportunities improved. The war didn't bring women into the workforce -- British women had always worked (as an historian, I usually avoid using the word "always" as it is rather ahistorical, but in this case I really mean it) -- but the war brought women's employment into the public. They no longer had to rely on cottage-industry-style piecework or on domestic employment because clerical and factory jobs became available to them. Although there was a huge push to get women back into the private sphere after the war (and most middle-class women did go back), many women kept their jobs, particularly in the new light electrical industries, which employed women for assembly-line manufacturing. Their refusal to return to domestic service created the so-called crisis of domestic service, but the new industries in which they worked supplied labor-saving devices to the middle-class and lower-middle-class women who, for the first time, had to make do without domestic servants. Miriam Glucksmann provides an excellent analysis of this labor shift in Women Assemble.

These interwar factory girls, all decked out in stockings and lipstick (see Sally Alexander's Becoming a Woman), were, however, deeply resented by the massive numbers of unemployed men, former workers in the traditional heavy industries of the north who had been put out of work by the econmic shifts engendered by the war and by the Second Industrial Revolution, which led to the obsolescence of the traditional British industries. These men of the North of England were the first to experience postindustrialism, and J.B. Priestly poignantly described their plight in English Journey. Their desperate situation is best symbolized by the unemployed men of Jarrow, who marched to London in 1936 to lobby Parliament for jobs.

The narrative of the Great Depression isn't quite adequate for the experience of Britain between the wars because massive unemployment began nearly a decade before the 1929 stock market crash. At the same time, however, as Priestly noted on his journey, England was not uniformly depressed. New industries boomed in the South, creating a new class of workers who had access to new and more democratic forms of consumption and leisure coming in from the United States, symbolized by Woolworth's and Hollywood. As I emphasized to my students yesterday, the interwar period is one characterized by deep division, not just class division, but regional division, and that the so-called "Great Depression" was experienced very differently by heavy industrial workers in the North, by assembly-line workers in the South, and by the middle class throughout Britain.

Posted by eklanche at November 9, 2006 08:32 AM

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